isolation

BEAR BY MARIAN ENGEL

It wasn’t a conscious decision. Reading is not my life’s passion, it is a symptom. Being drawn towards books is simply a way of drawing away from you, all of you. As a child I convinced myself that my environment was to blame, that of course I could not relate to those sorts of people, and yet I have long since left behind that environment, and those people, so what excuse do I have now? I still can’t consistently relate. To loved ones, occasional ones, anyone. Naively, I thought it would be different when I started relationships, relationships I entered into freely, with women I chose for myself. With women I like and who like me. For a while. I’m gloomy and difficult, yes, but I’m not an idiot. My choices are made rationally. For a while it was different. It is different. But the hole in which I hide isn’t big enough for two. Not long-term. It’s too cramped, and the books take up a lot of room. So they leave, and I feel relieved. For a while. Until I start to panic, because life, I think, cannot be lived in isolation, cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

“For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclusion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately, that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.”

I know nothing about Marian Engel. Bear could be her first novel, her last, her only, her anything. Selfishly, I hope this is it, that she opened up to the world once, giving it bestiality and loneliness, and then turned her back on it. I must confess that the bestiality is how I ended up here. Cynically, I wanted to cross it off my reading list. I also thought it might bring a wry smile to the face of my audience, what small audience I have. Yes, you’re following me down the toilet and into the sewer. We’re all in, at this point. However, although the book is spoken of as the one in which a woman has sex with a bear, that isn’t actually the case, if we’re talking about penetration. The bear gives her oral sex, unwittingly, several times. The woman plays with the bear’s balls, I seem to recall. She bends over, once, to allow the bear to mount her; but the bear does not mount. In short, if pornography is what you are looking for from the book then you will surely be disappointed. Unless you get off on the loneliness, of course.

It is something of a struggle to remember the name of the central character. I didn’t make a note of it. If a physical description of her is given by Engel I have forgotten it. ‘In the winter,’ we’re told, ‘she lived like a mole,’ which suggests a certain look, of course, and an attitude. It is also said that the institute in which she is ‘buried’ is ‘protectively’ lined with books. How suggestive that ‘protectively’ is too. Books, her work, her ‘digging among maps and manuscripts’; these things are her life, her refuge. To the exclusion of all else? I’d say not. She fucks the director. She fucks Homer. She tries to fuck the bear, remember. Like me, she hasn’t volunteered for this, for isolation, for emptiness. She tries, she is trying, but things are going badly. She doesn’t withdraw into books, she uses them as a crutch, as company, as a placeholder. When she goes away, to the island, she takes her typewriter, which earns her a ‘look of pity.’ Because it speaks of solitude.

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The bear lives on the island, if its situation could be said to be any kind of living. Chained up, in a shed. It’s a good bear, not too bad tempered. Big, but not too big. Old. Lou, for the woman is called Lou I now think, muses that it is so very different to a toy bear. It is real. It is alive, if its state could be described as such. It is highlighted, more than once, that this is a wild creature. It can kill. It is dangerous. Potentially. The woman is told not to get too friendly with it. And yet she gets very friendly indeed, of course. There is something extravagant about a bear, I believe, and this appeals to Lou. Something ‘wonderfully strange.’ For someone who has so little in her life, who is lacking in excitement, to be on an island with a pet bear for company is stimulating. It might make her feel important. Like a queen, perhaps. Or an eccentric or decadent. The sort who populate her books. But this bear, this bear is all too like Lou, really. It is ‘tired and sad,’ rather than menacing. It is docile. It is ‘stupid and defeated.’ Like Lou.

The bear is a symbol, really. It is Lou, it is her life, it is the attentive, non-judgemental lover she never had. When she begins to show an interest in the creature, once she has earned its trust, and it has earned hers, she takes it swimming, and it starts to revive. Its coat shines. Life is beat back into the beast’s heart, as life is beat back into Lou’s. After such a shared reawakening their relationship becomes ever more intimate, as one would expect. The bear is a blank canvas, one might say. Lou can, and does, project onto it. She can make him be, can see in his ways, in his behaviour, in his mood, anything she wants; and because the bear is always what she wants he can never, of course, disappoint. And so she falls in love. Real love. A non-platonic love. A sensual, sexual love. For the bear. He ‘seemed subdued and full of grief,’ she thinks when she feels subdued and full of grief. He is like her, he feels what she feels. He is her because she makes him thus, because she models him on herself.

This is a book about sadness and loneliness, and bestiality. It is about bestiality only because it is about loneliness and sadness. The bear can’t even get an erection; his dick won’t respond to her caresses. And I don’t know what is sadder than that. To take a bear as a lover, and be unable to get him hard. An animal, with animal instincts. You can make a dog fuck a pillow, for christ’s sake. There’s loneliness, sadness, isolation, and desperation on damn near every page. The woman, Lou, in a basement. The bear in his shed, on a chain; the bear whose owner has died. The island. The man who Lou picks up, before the bear, long ago, that leaves her for another woman. He got an erection, certainly. As did the director. And Homer. But these men are attentive to their own needs, not hers. Unlike the bear, who will lick her with its ridged tongue whenever she parts her legs. At one point it is written that the woman ‘always loved her loneliness,’ but that is a lie. On damn near every page that is shown to be a lie. For Lou, life cannot be lived in isolation, it cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

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A BALCONY IN THE FOREST BY JULIEN GRACQ

I have felt, throughout the year, an intensifying fear, an increasing discomfort, a kind of claustrophobia, as though something terrible, something unavoidable, perhaps even fatal, is closing in on me. A couple of days ago, this feeling reached an apex, and drove me out of the house around midnight, with no plan or direction in mind. However, once outside a strange sort of calm came over me. The streets were clear, the sky starless and raven black; and the cool air was like clean linen against my skin. I lit a cigarette and, as I dragged on it, I watched the tip dancing in the dark like a firefly. Then, out the corner of my eye I spotted a spider, suspended on its web; a black jewel in the centre of an ornate crown. I walked over to it, expecting to experience the usual grotesque fascination, the instinctive desire to crush, and yet, as absurd as it sounds, I was moved.

I thought about leaving, about getting on a train, a hopefully deserted train, to nowhere in particular; an attempt to outrun my existence. But of course, I did not. I went back inside; and, with a lamentable reflexive cowardice, searched my shelves for a book that would comfort or speak to me in my present mood. The one that stood out for me in this regard was A Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq. Indeed, it begins with a man on a train, Lieutenant Grange, who, as he travels, feels as though he is leaving behind the ‘world’s ugliness.’ Set in 1939, the ugliness of which Gracq writes, and which Grange wishes to avoid, is, of course, the second world war. Yet for much of the novel the war is in the background, is more a threat than a reality. It is manifested in the sound of French soldiers coming from local houses, and is evident in the flowerbeds trampled under hobnailed boots.

“This stretch through the fogbound forest gradually lulled Grange into his favorite daydream; in it he saw an image of his life: all that he had he carried with him; twenty feet away, the world grew dark, perspectives blurred, and there was nothing near him but this close halo of warm consciousness, this nest perched high above the vague earth.”

The primary focus is on Grange’s mundane existence as the commander at a blockhouse in the Ardennes forest, the post to which the aforementioned train was taking him. His days there are, we’re told, ‘pleasingly empty’, which is to say that they are relaxing and mostly free from army activity. He chats to the men under his command, he meets a woman, he wanders through the forest; he, rather comically, considering the circumstances, sits in a garden chair, sips coffee, and plunges into ‘a kind of dreamy beatitude.’ It is as though he is on a long rustic holiday, ‘slowly vegetating at one of the least sensitive nerve endings of the war’s great body.’ All of which might make A Balcony in the Forest sound tremendously dull; however, although it is certainly low on high octane thrills, it features some of the most beautiful nature writing I have read and has a stately grace to it that I found compelling.

Moreover, while WW2 is generally off stage in terms of action, it is still ever present in the mind of the reader, if not always the characters; in fact, it dominates the book by its absence, and this is what gives it its emotional punch. Everything that Grange does, specifically the way that he looks at and experiences the forest, is related to the war. There are numerous references to the silence of his surroundings, for example, and one understands that this is unusual, is out of sync with the times, and cannot, more importantly, last, for very soon the tanks and guns will shatter it. Indeed, there is a overriding sense of the unreal. The forest itself is described as being ‘magical,’ ‘endless’ and ‘unconquerable.’ For Grange it acts as a kind of ‘fairy tale’ refuge, or ‘forgotten wilderness’, which is virtually cut off from ‘the inhabited world.’ This world, the inhabited world, is, one cannot forget, about to be thrust into bloody chaos.

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Before concluding, I should deal with Mona, for in the limited number of reviews of the novel on the internet she is cited as its biggest flaw. She is introduced as a figure in the distance ‘splashing from puddle to puddle’, which sets the tone for all of her [limited] appearances. When Grange catches up with her he likens her to, or even believes her to be, a rain sprite, emphasising her otherwordliness and, once again, the magic of the forest. At various points she is described as childish, or child like, as well as puppyish and kittenish. To some extent, I can understand certain readers’ irritation, for she is certainly not a rounded character; she is a male fantasy, a down-to-fuck forest fairy. However, what this kind of criticism overlooks is that it is Grange’s perception of her, not the author’s; and, as such, it is entirely appropriate, being consistent with both his frame of mind and the tone of the novel as a whole. Furthermore, no character in the book, not even the Lieutenant, is well developed; they are all essentially one dimensional.

“In this forest wilderness perched high above the Meuse it was as if they were on a roof and the ladder taken away.”

I have read three of the four novels that Julien Gracq wrote, of which A Balcony in the Forest is the last, both in terms of its publication and my own relationship with his work. Often, it is compared to his most acclaimed novel The Opposing Shore, which is itself compared to Dino Buzatti’s The Tartar Steppe. Yet while all three are about waiting for war, it differs from its more well known brothers in that they are principally concerned with impatience and disappointment. The central characters in The Opposing Shore and The Tartar Steppe yearn for a more exciting existence, while Grange wants quite the opposite; he is happy to remain inactive, to be forgotten, overlooked, left alone. This is a novel of avoidance, and the joys of isolation; it is about hiding in enchantment, about finding, and clinging to, a haven of peace and tranquility, if only for a short time. As such, it was, despite my shameful head-in-the-sand tendencies, perhaps exactly what I needed; and, looking at the unstable world around me, a world that appears to be violently haemorrhaging, it could be just what you need too.